15 October 2010

Back to Greece and Blogging

So after taking two weeks off it's about time I get back to cooking. I decided to head back to Greece for my next dish since I am completely in love with Greek cuisine. Tzatziki alone makes me drool. Now I've been to Greece so I feel like I can share a few of my own fun facts about Greek cuisine and culture having experienced it instead of researching the place.

1. In Greece they really take their siesta time seriously. Stores are closed for a few hours in the afternoon and unless you are in the really touristy parts, the streets are pretty empty so make sure you grab lunch before this happens or you’ll be left eating airplane peanuts you stored away. Embrace naptime instead of hunting for food.

2. Street cart food is super cheap and super delicious. I went at Christmas where every corner had a cart selling roasting chestnuts, coconut pieces, kabobs, gyros, or giant doughnuts. Everything is fresh and the point and pay method works really well, just make sure they don’t rip you off.

3. The restaurant owners love hassling tourists to eat at their establishment and they will follow you down the street no matter how many times you reject their offer. It’s much worse when traveling in a group so just be prepared to say no a lot.

4. Despite the husslers, you might get lucky enough to eat Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant owned by a large Greek family around closing time where they will offer you free kabobs and spiced desserts because they need to get rid of the food. Take the food and thank them generously and if they offer to adopt you, consider their offer. I’m joking of course. Well about the last part anyways.

5. Greek pastries are like heaven in your mouth. Especially the cheese ones. Yes in fact you should buy as many as you can. Just walk up the Acropolis if you’re feeling guilty afterwards.

So because I had such a great Christmas Eve in Athens, I decided to re-visit and recreate that particular memory. In fact, I have so many fond memories of Greece, mostly due to all the people I had the pleasure of meeting. So as you may guess, Christmas Eve was exactly that. Staying at a hostel definitely has its advantages because you are given the perfect opportunity to meet and interact with people all over the world and around the holidays everyone is just trying to find some semblance of family away from home.

In Athens I shared a room with a great group of girls and on Christmas Eve we decided to go out to dinner. When all the shops would close for a couple hours, most of us would return from our sightseeing for a nap. So in the company of four girls, we began our restaurant hunt well after nine at night and after several blocks of walking we came across a small family owned place away from the tourist traps. We were welcomed warmly and offered the Christmas Eve specials which included either Moussaka or lamp chops along with a complimentary bottle of wine. I told you we were welcomed warmly! I also mentioned the free lamb kabobs and a spiced gelatin dessert. I had the Moussaka and it was absolutely delicious.

Moussaka is an eggplant dish with some form of minced meat with a tomato base topped with a type of baked cream or custard. Not the type of dessert custard, but a sauce called bechamel which is made of mostly of milk, flour, and eggs. The whole thing is baked to a beautiful shade of brown and is absolutely delicious. On that memorable Christmas Eve my moussaka was made from ground lamb and also had zucchini. I decided I should try and recreate the recipe so I began my search for a five star moussaka recipe and tweaked from there. I did end up using lean ground beef instead of lamb (way cheaper!) but my result was just as I remembered. If you love eggplant and zucchini you will love this casserole-type dish. The eggplant came out tender, the spices created a unique flavor without being overwhelming, and bechamel sauce turned a lovely golden brown and was creamy not chewy. I'm praying that the leftovers are just as good since that tends to be what determines whether I keep a recipe like this or not. So far it's looking promising though. Sometimes I don't even feel like I'm living in a dorm, I don't know how other college students can live off mac and cheese!

29 September 2010

Sweet Endings

Canada is one of those places I've always wanted to visit. In fact it's really kind of strange how I've been able to visit Europe four times but can't seem to plan a trip to Canada even though it's closer in mileage and wouldn't involve crossing any oceans. If there is some way for me to visit Canada, I will take it. Canada was colonized by the French and the British so it's only natural for it to pick up some of those customs and of course the impact those cultures have played on the cuisine. The range in climate and landscape is of course equally influential.

In the southeastern and western plains wheat, barley, fruits, and vegetables are gown and dispersed within Canada and also exported to other countries. Cattle are also raised for meat and dairy. Then of course along the coasts you have plentiful amounts of fish and seafood. The U.S. is pretty much the same in these respects and it makes sense. As I mentioned, a lot of the cuisine is British and French inspired, however, like here there are of course other European dishes that became popular during immigration.

Staples and popular foods in Canada mirror those of the U.S. with potatoes, bread, and pasta playing a huge part. Unlike the U.S. however, rarer meats such as seal blubber, caribou, and buffalo have a small role in certain regions. Another Canadian specialty is wild rice which looks black before being cooked is much longer and larger than the rice we tend to refer to as "wild" rice. In Canada Thanksgiving is also observed, except in October, but it's still the typical turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie combo that we find here. Because of all the similarities between Canadian cuisine and American cuisine, I wanted to find something that was definitely more Canadian inspired or highlighted their history as a French colony. I also wanted to end things on a sweet note, so yes, I wanted to cook another dessert type dish.

My dish of choice fell into my lap when I learned about a type of dumpling cooked in maple syrup called grandfathers or, more accurately, grandperes. Grandperes is a very old recipe that doesn't have a specific origin other than some sort of French background as seen in the name as it has been passed down through French-Canadian families with no real root of origin. The dumplings were super easy to make and used staples of any cupboard, yes even that of a college student like myself, and the only required purchase was real maple syrup. I paid a pretty penny for my cute jug of syrup, but the authentic maple flavor was worth it. I haven't had real maple syrup in ages so this was definitely a treat for me.

I will say one thing, this recipe is definitely sweet and three of these little guys had me completely full. I ate mine as an afternoon snack with vanilla ice cream after class and what a treat! I don't make dumplings often because they don't keep well and I'm more of a pancake kind of person, but with the maple syrup these were a little reminiscent of that. They also smell delightful, let's just say it's going to be hard to go back to imitation maple syrup after I'm done with my little jug. I definitely wrapped up my thirty country cooking adventure on the right note.

So now that I've reached the light at the end of the tunnel, I am actually a little sad that it's over. Now I have to begin the process of putting together my cookbook, a task that just doesn't sound as fun as actually researching the recipes and cooking them, but as promised that will be my end result and I only have two days to accomplish it. I hope you all enjoyed my recipes, I have future plans to keep expanding my cookbook so keep in touch and I'll let you know when I have this adventure up and running again. For now I must take a small break from a hectic cooking schedule, copy some recipes down, and eat some Italian food. I will be writing one final post before this competition ends, I can't believe this is my penultimate post, September just flew on by and October is nearly upon me.
My sweet endings, click the photo one last time for a recipe. Enjoy and make these anytime you need life to be a little sweeter.

27 September 2010

Beans with History

My most recent memory of Cuba involves the documentary Sicko and how "amazing" Cuba's health care was portrayed. Heath care issues seem to come up time and time again and it seems like comparing other countries and their health care systems to that of the United States has definitely added some heat to the debates. From my own experience I will say one thing, not everything appears as nice (or not nice depending on viewpoint) in real life as it does in a documentary. Now Cuba may have free health care, yes this is true. This sort of comes with socialism if I remember correctly from my high school history classes. Which by the way, if free health care isn't part of a socialist government correct me because it's a miracle I even passed those classes since me and history are less adhesive than oil and water. Now I don't want to turn this into some huge health care debate, but I will say one thing, free health care makes it difficult to pay doctors and keep facilities equipped, higher life expectancy or not, it's not a walk in the park. So that's my spiel on Cuba and their health care.

As one of the remaining Communist countries, Cuba also suffers from what probably isn't the best reputation. However, politics aside, their cuisine is something to be desired, no matter what kind of government eats it. This place knows how to make great food. Any list of Cuban dishes will be extensive, all noteworthy in my opinion. In fact when I first began my research for Cuba, which seems like ages ago, I had a very difficult time choosing a dish. I had realized that every single dish sounded amazing, each bursting with flavor and spices, all fusions of Spanish, Caribbean, and African cuisines. So I went for one of the most obvious, their national dish, something called "Monk's Black Beans." Well after some extensive recipe hunting and digging around in Cuban cuisine, I emerged without a clue on why the dish was the national dish or where the name came from. I ended my search with the conclusion that Monk's Black Beans and a bean and rice dish called Moros Y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) were one in the same. Now I can't guarantee the accuracy of this statement, but the ingredients for the two are pretty much identical. Having said that, I am formally changing the original name of my chosen dish from Monk's Black Beans to Moros Y Christianos, which actually has cultural and historical significance.

The name of the dish refers to wars between the Moors and the Spaniards. The black beans in the dish signify the Moors and the rice represents the Christian Spaniards and the centuries of battle that happened between them in Spain. Nowadays, this rice and bean dish is found on almost every Cuban table to act as a reminder of the Spanish influence on Cuba. It's not a daily ritual to think about the Spanish invasion that happened centuries ago, but it does show you just how much ancient history can impact the cultures today. That is what I found so incredibly fascinating about this dish. Can you imagine, I mean we're talking about an event that happened more than 500 years ago and how it has impacted everyday cuisine. This goes to show you how sometimes finding the origins of dishes can be a long and laborious process and even just discovering the names behind some dishes can remain a mystery.

I do have to say right off the bat, this recipe is definitely a keeper and one of my favorites. It was so incredibly easy but so incredibly tasty that I will be making it again very soon. I do have a strong love of black beans so that certainly contributed, but I did love the infusion of the spices. I also love cumin so with the black beans the likelihood of me disliking this was pretty slim. The best part, you stick it in a pot and let it cook, no tending or difficult steps needed. The most intensive process is cutting up the veggies and the results do wow. You could definitely serve this as a side dish no problem, or be like me and eat it alone with some tortillas. It's not spicy, it's incredibly flavorful, it's easy to make, and it is one of the standout dishes I've made out of this cooking challenge. Cuban food will become a part of my cuisines I cook more of!

26 September 2010

Chicken Salad with a Twist

First off, I do have to apologize for the lateness of this post. I spent all day drawing bones which takes much longer than I expected. Now lets forget about the ache in my right hand and take our minds to another paradise. Antigua and Barbuda is much like Belize with bright blue seas and sparkling beaches. Unlike Belize which is landlocked, this country is actually composed to two islands located in the Caribbean separated by only a few miles. At one time the islands were used extensively for producing cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and the production of other goods. As a result, many of the workers were slaves and so nowadays the majority are those who are descendants of the slaves who were brought from Africa to work in the fields. The islands were also under British rule until they gained independence in 1981, however the official language has remained English and British customs like afternoon tea and sandwiches are still very common in daily life.

Now the islands are producers of pineapple, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables that thrive in the tropical climate. Staples on the islands are those common all over the world such as rice, beans, and corn. Being surrounded by water has allowed shellfish to have a large role in the cuisine, however chicken and preserved meats are also very common. Typical meals can be anything from grilled fish to stews called pepper pots which contain meats and vegetables as well as Indian curry inspired dishes such as curried chicken salad, which is what I intended to make since it was fused with the exotic flavors of the island.

I have nice enough parents that are willing to play a game of chicken trade-off where I sent some raw chicken breasts home with mom who gave them to dad who grilled them and sent them back to work with mom for me to pick up. It was like hot potato. I just couldn't imagine making this salad any other way though and felt that in this case I needed the slightly smoky flavor of grilled chicken to help compliment the rest of the ingredients. I was not wrong, the grilled chicken really heightens the other flavors in this. The recipe I found also used mango chutney, which I couldn't find in stores, so I made my own. I was actually a little wary about making chutney since 1-I had never made it before and 2-I thought it would take forever since I thought it was more of a preserve. After searching for a recipe I was amazed and relieved that it only took about half an hour to make on a stove top and required easy to find ingredients, most of which I had already. I actually made the chutney a day in advance just in case something were to go horribly wrong, but it was very much like making a type of soup where all you really have to do is chop everything up and toss it in a pot in the right order. Not to mention, I'm sure my homemade stuff was better than anything found in a jar sitting on a shelf.

For me the best thing about this chicken salad was that it didn't use that much mayonnaise, which I always find is way overused in salad recipes, and with the chutney, pineapple bits, and curry the flavor is definitely unique with a tropical twist. I was actually afraid it would be too sweet, but with some romaine, toasted bread, and the grilled chicken, it only had a hint of sweet and was actually a little tangy from the lemon juice. I really enjoyed the flavor of this one and this has been the first meal that I have made for myself which can be grabbed out of the fridge, no reheating necessary, whipped up and taken to class for lunch. For this reason specifically I chose this sandwich recipe the minute I read about it in The World Cookbook for Students. I always try to find other types of dishes than just those that are served hot or required the extensive use of an oven or stove. I will be playing around with curry chicken salads in the future to see what other fun things I can add to give them a little "oomph."


24 September 2010

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

Belize is the place everyone seems to flock to come vacation time. The allure of the sandy beaches and deep blue waters, who wouldn't want to go there? Belize is also one of the least populous countries in the Americas, even better, who wants to shove their way through hoards of people on their vacation? The more I learned about the climate and the more pictures I looked at, the more I thought that it makes sense why so many people would want to go there for vacation. Not to mention it's a country of great biological diversity because of the Barrier Reef and all the forests. So of course I had to cook something from Belize if I couldn't go there myself, this place sounded too desirable to pass up!

The cuisine in Belize takes use of a lot of rice and bean dishes and to keep in line with the tropical climate, plantains and coconut milk are used frequently. I've actually had fried plantains before and they are a delicious snack and also have a significant role in the cuisine so if you've never had them, give them a go. Now aside from fried plantains, a staple of Belize is stew chicken. In fact there are so many ways to prepare stew chicken in a single country it's a little astounding. In fact this dish can be as simple or elaborate as you want it. Some recipes call for few ingredients and herbs, others add an assortment of vegetables, then there are those recipes that use a thick paste called recado. I figured a recipe with this many Mexican spices would redeem me from my practically flavorless encounter with Vatapa from Brazil.

Having never tried recado before and being near Mexico where the more unique spices are available, I decided to give one of the many recado based stew chicken recipes a go. Now recado, or more accurately, red recado is an annatto and ancho based paste. In some cases, already prepared recado mix can be found in stores and all you do is add water, I looked and couldn't find any so I went the homemade route. I was able to find both ground annatto and ancho chili powder here in Flagstaff which was a complete contrast to Africa when I couldn't find anything. Annatto, which may also be called Roucou or even achiote (which is what I found it as), is described as "slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg". I personally couldn't find any nutmeg flavors, but I can say smelling this stuff is a little potent on the nose and made me sneeze a good couple of times. In a lot of dishes it's actually used for color as well as flavor. Ancho on the other hand is a very common chili grown in Mexico and begins a sort of purple, but matures to a dark red. The powder is also a very dark red color and considered mild and smokey. Together with plenty of garlic, this makes a wonderfully thick paste and smells fabulous.

In fact this was probably one of my favorite dishes and it's definitely thanks to the red recado since it adds loads of flavor to the chicken. I actually have some leftover recado paste and I will be finding another recipe to try with it. The chicken is stewed until it's falling apart and wonderfully tender. I ate my stew chicken with rice (I didn't have beans to add to the rice sadly), but the juices from the pot were enough to give it plenty of flavor. The chicken is also cooked with a habenero pepper which definitely adds some heat, in fact I could almost go without the pepper because the dish has plenty of flavor without the spiciness. Overall, this is a dish to be reckoned with, one I will be making again. The stew chicken can also be eaten on Johnny cakes, which are dense biscuits, but I could easily see myself eating it on a nice freshly baked roll much like barbecue beef. Definitely flavorful and definitely unique with the recado!


21 September 2010

Texture Issues

Brazil is a country of soccer fanatics. In fact, despite the outcome of this year's world cup, Brazil has been the most successful country overall, winning five times! They also have delicious coffee, in fact I was really tempted to make iced Brazilian coffee as "a dish" but I figured that might be cheating a little. Brazil also has the largest variation in monkey species, the largest rain forest, and one of the largest soccer stadiums in the world. See, I told you they loved their soccer!

As for the cuisine, you can probably guess it's quite varied just based off the size of the country. The better known region for its cuisine is the southeast where chicken, pork, beans, and corn are quite common and when you think of rice and beans, this is a region known for it. European influences are also present in this region. Then further north you get into dishes that are more native to Brazil. Vatapa is a classic Brazillian dish popular in the north and northeast coast. In this region it's eaten with fried patties made from black eyed peas, but in the rest of Brazil it's eaten on rice. The "stew" which is more paste-liek than stew-like is more commonly made with shrimp, however chicken, turkey, and fish are other options. Vatapa made with chicken is called Vatapa de Galinha and was the variation that I chose for my meal.

Now I must first put a disclaimer here. I can't even convince myself that this is a beautiful dish. In fact it looks like something that was already digested but decided to make a reappearance. I know, gross, but in all honesty no matter what light or angle you look at this or how you "stage it," it's just that. So because I can't even convince myself, there is no way I'm going to try and convince you guys. The recipe suggests dendê (palm)oil, which would give it a more yellow tone and less khaki, and maybe that will help on the appearance front, but at this rate the breadcrumbs still make it decidedly mushy looking and unappetizing. I will say one thing, the shrimp/garlic/onion/pepper mix smells absolutely delightful when you cook it. I was salivating just stirring the pot.

Of course then you add peanut butter and breadcrumbs and that delicious scent sort of vanishes, not that it smells bad, it just doesn't smell as good. As for flavor, I'm completely confused by this recipe to be honest. It's not appealing to the eyes, it's smells decent enough, the texture isn't appealing to my tongue, yet it's not the worst thing I have ever eaten. I did like the coconut flavor and the spiciness of the pepper, I did like the hint of shrimp and the shredded chicken, but I did not like the consistency and overall flavor. I'm a texture eater and a lot of times perfectly good dishes put me off because the texture seems off, I definitely had texture issues with this one.

I should also mention that despite the unique flavors, on the surface it's rather bland, but if you separate the flavors it's good. I'm not sure how that makes sense, but that's the best I can do to describe this rather odd "stew" which is more like a thick paste. In fact without the rice I don't think I would have been able to eat a bowl of this. To prove this, halfway through it I added additional pepper flakes to try to distract myself from the texture. Breadcrumbs are just too strange to be used as a thickening agent. I don't know about this, you're just going to have to whip up the courage to make it yourself if my description has failed because I don't see any other way for you to understand what I'm babbling about. If you're torn on whether you should make this, I should mention that I'm wasn't exactly jumping with joy at the fact that I had to eat the leftovers. However, the I did get more accustomed to the texture after the second time around, but it still wasn't quite my thing.


Perhaps you thought I was exaggerating when I mentioned the appearance of this. Nope, I'm too honest for that.

20 September 2010

Hunger Killer

Argentina differs from most of South America when it comes to cuisine because unlike many of the other countries that have been inspired by European cuisines, Argentina draws a lot of its inspiration from the Andean people. Red meat is also more common in Argentine cuisine and each person eats about 70.2kg annually (Americans only consume about 45.3kg). So it's no surprise that many of their dishes are beef or contain beef and each dish contains high amounts of protein. Meat is eaten grilled, fried, rolled into sausages, put into pies - it's everywhere. Often meat dishes are accompanied by Chumichurri which is an herb, garlic, and vinegar type paste.

Beef isn't all though, Argentine cuisine is extensive and is definitely one of the more studied cuisines I've chosen. While European cuisines are more common in other South American countries, that's not to say they're forgotten in Argentina. In fact Italian favorites like pizza and pasta dishes have a substantial role in their cuisine along with the classic dulce de leche which is not only put in cakes, but spread on toast and ice cream. Argentina also draws inspiration from German pastries, French wine, Italian polenta, and Spanish classics like churros and flan. So you can only imagine just how vast Argentine cuisine stretches.

I wanted to stray away from the more European dishes though and find something more Argenitine or Andean to cook. I actually had quite a bit of fun making my chosen dish, mostly because I had the company of one of my fellow residents during the preparation. I have gotten so used to cooking in the kitchen (which I should add is in my dorm's basement) that it gets rather lonely rather quickly. Not this time though and I can say it was an amusing dish to make and talk about. Now first off, I don't cook beef very often in college. The main reason is that it's more expensive than chicken and isn't as good leftover. In fact the only time I buy beef is for fajitas and meatballs and even then I've been getting into the habit of buying chicken or ground turkey since the ground beef these days hasn't impressed me. However, it's been quite a while since I've had beef because of this cooking venture (I have mentioned my meatball cravings right?) so I went for it.

One of the main reasons that I decided to cook a beef dish called Matambre was that it was rolled with veggies. Sounded like the ideal full course meal rolled into one. No, I really do mean rolled into one since the beef is laid out into a thick "sheet" and stuffed with veggies before being rolled and tied up. This was a new experience for me, I don't roll meat and I have certainly never had to tie up meat. I'm not too skilled at it I've learned. Wrapping gifts I can do, wrapping up meat and keeping everything inside where it's supposed to be, not so much. I should also mention that oddly enough you stick hardboiled eggs inside too, which really don't like to stay put during the rolling process. I did accomplish the task though, determination is everything! Now I should also mention that 'mata' and 'hambre' apparently translates to "hunger killer" so I decided to see whether that was true.

Well one thick slice of this served with some peas and I can say the name suits it. The breadcrumbs definitely help in this area and all the protein in this will definitely fill you up. Aside from the egg part, I did like this, the egg was just too odd for me and made making it, cutting it, and serving it more difficult than it was worth. I'm not the biggest fan of harboiled eggs either so I may be a little biased. I should bring up how tender my meat was though and I'm not sure if that was from marinating it overnight in wine vinegar or the cooking process, but for such a "tough" cut of meat I couldn't really tell. Now I will say that I should have tied mine up better since the meat and veggies expand a little while it cooks and soaks up the juices and so some of my stuffing came out of the end, but it all tastes the same in the end even if it lacks the beauty of the well-tied up matambres I saw in photos. Overall, this dish was interesting and reminded me of those infomercials for the little syringe thing that injects herbs and spices into roasts. For just one person I wouldn't make it again since it doesn't make the most ideal leftovers, but the presentation reminds me a bit of the holidays. Sticking to Argentine culture, I also made Chumichurri which does add an extra boost of flavor to the dish, although it can be quite strong so very little is needed as an accent to the dish. This was definitely a filling and complete meal.

18 September 2010

Dahomey Stew from Benin

Benin is a rather small and skinny country wedged between Nigeria and Togo, which is on the western African coast for those not familiar with Africa's geography. If it helps any it's close to the Ivory Coast. I found the history of Benin more interesting than anything else so for once I will actually be giving a little history lesson. Benin was actually the kingdom of Dahomey at one point and was actually pretty powerful, in fact it was ruled by kings who managed to defeat other kingdoms. With their defeat, survivors were killed or sold as slaves which earned Dahomey it's control of the slave trade with Europeans. The slave trade actually brought Dahomey (now Beninese) culture to the Americas as they brought their African practices with them and there are still strong cultural ties present in Latin and South America.

The kings of Dahomey were not viewed as deities, yet they were honored and often their ceremonies involved human sacrifice. However, in the late 1800s France entered Dahomey and battles broke out which resulted in the colonization of the country. However, despite nearly seventy years under French control, Dahomey was still very much a country of power and gained its independence from France and the name Dahomey was given to evoke its history of glory. The country was not named Benin until the mid 1970s after a body of water to represent neutrality since the kingdom only covered about a third of the country. Benin, like many countries in Africa, has about a third of its population living below the poverty line and off of less than $1.25 per day.

Benin cuisine is rich in rice, corn, beans, yams, cassava and due to it's coastal regions, fish. Vegetables are fairly common as well and Benin is actually recognized in Africa for it's exotic ingredients. Due to the 70 some years of French colonization, Benin cuisine has also been influenced by French cuisine. However, despite its more modern take on cuisine, there is of course the remnants from the years it was the kingdom of Dahomey as well as when Benin first gained its independence as Dahomey. One such dish is Dahomey stew which is a simple combination of ingredients and appeals to those who may not be able to afford more exotic ingredients and milk.

Dahomey stew is incredibly easy to make and it is actually pretty flavorful for containing fewer than ten ingredients. I've also realized through my African cooking adventure that stews are often thicker than those we might find in America or Britain with thick gravies. In fact in Africa many of them are low in stock and more vegetable based and are served on top of rice. This stew was mostly tomatoes and onions. Despite the simplicity, I really enjoyed this. Is it the most delicious dish I have made thus far? Certainly not, but it is the type of dish I would make again and the simplicity is very much down my alley. I also have to say that my fish was like butter, I couldn't believe that frozen tilapia could be so incredibly soft. I don't know whether it was from the frying and then simmering the fillets, but they melted in my mouth. Or maybe I was just stuck in a rut and always baked my tilapia in the oven. I also loved how the fish wasn't ground or chopped mercilessly. I think the only thing I might change is to use less onion since it can be a little strong, but I loved the tomato base and the red chili pepper flakes. I ate this one right up and it was probably in the category of quickest and easiest meal I've made yet. Not to mention it's incredibly filling. Will be making this again, especially when times get busy and I want a nice hot meal right off the stove. This is my last meal from Africa, now it's into the jungles of South America I go!

16 September 2010

Moroccan Breakfast for Lunch

I was very excited for Moroccan food because it seems to be one of the more well-known cuisines of Africa, yet I've never even tried it. I knew before researching the country that Moroccan food is often bursting with flavors from spices and full of flavor - that was the rumor anyways. Morocco actually reminds me a little of Arizona geography wise because it spans from Mountain ranges to the Sahara desert, not to mention to the Atlantic ocean. I saw photos of beaches, deserts, and even snow-covered trees! The contrast from Tucson to Flagstaff can be said to be very similar. The cuisine in Morocco is a little like the geography - quite diverse. It has been influenced by the Mediterranean, Western European countries like Spain and Portugal, and the Middle East. All of these cuisines come together in a medley of bright colors and flavorful dishes.

I was immediately drawn to Chakchouka which is more of a breakfast or brunch dish and since I hadn't done one of those I of course haven't had anything aside from oatmeal since this challenge began to eat in the mornings and jumped at the opportunity to cook eggs. Basically I've realized during this challenge that this is the longest I have gone without eating Italian, Mexican, and breakfast dishes and I am suffering from severe withdrawals! Chakchouka uses mainly paprika with a chili powder to spice things up and the eggs are cooked in little "holes" that you form in all the veggies so they come out a little like poached eggs. I like poached eggs, I love bell peppers, and I love breakfast - this was my kind of late lunch. Perfect after spending four hours in the lab!

Chakchouka can be eaten with crusty bread or pia, but I had tortillas so that was what I had mine with. I am definitely a fan of this one and I could see myself adding a little ground turkey to the vegetables, but it is equally delicious without. One thing I liked about this recipe, it allowed me to use the paprika that is sitting in my spice collection which I don't use for anything. Yes! Finally a use for one of my neglected spices that I bought for a meal ages ago and haven't touched since! I also liked the slight spiciness of the chili powder which is toned down considerably by the tomatoes. My eggs also cooked perfectly, which surprised me since I thought they would become rubbery and overdone. Delish. Moroccan food is definitely a cuisine I could jump on board with, I will have to add this to my ever growing list of countries I want to cook more dishes from.

In all the photos I saw of Chakchouka they peel back the egg whites to expose the yolks, pretty sure it's for photographic reasons so I did the same. The eggs actually come out all white like poached eggs with the yolks not showing.

14 September 2010

Nigeria and Yams

Getting myself to cook today was a little like pulling teeth. The more countries I manage to check off my list, the harder it is to keep to schedule. To put things into perspective, I have an exam and two quizzes tomorrow, but until I get myself to finish reviewing for those I needed to address my growling stomach and to do that I needed to cook something from Nigeria and write about it. One very good thing has come out of this, I have become skilled at multitasking and a ridiculously good time manager. Now I'm not saying I was bad at it before, but I'm certainly a pro now and whenever I hear my fellow classmates complaining about how hard senior year is or how much studying they have to do, I sit down and actually do the work instead of moaning about it because I know if I don't time will bite me in the butt. So Nigeria, let's see what I thought about your cuisine.

Something Nigeria loves is colorful dishes. Different types of yams and other vegetables create bursts of color and this does make everything quite decadent looking. Nigeria uses all sorts of spices to add richness, variety, and flavor to their dishes and as I mentioned before when discussing Zimbabwe, they are also keen on groundnuts and have their own version of Groundnut Stew. Now along with groundnut based stews, their cuisine is bursting with soups and stews. Variety definitely has a strong role here in their soups alone.

A vast array of dishes isn't the only thing Nigeria has going on. I had no idea that Nigeria was the most populous country in Africa or that it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. If you asked me to list countries with rapidly growing economies, Nigeria would have never crossed my mind. Of course I'm a Biochemistry major so what do I know about world economics, but it still surprised me. Perhaps a part of the reason may have something to do with Nigeria's status as an oil exporter. Putting the economy aside, I focused back on the cuisine and went with something referred to as Kekefia, which is a type of yam "porridge" or stew served with fish. I thought that this dish, among all the others I've done up to this point, would really allow me to buy some interesting ingredients.

It required a plantain for one, which is sort of like a banana but a little harder with a different flavor. My roommate during sophomore year used to fry them and they were always delicious so I figured why not stick them in a pot with some sweet potatoes? I do have to say one thing, this recipe called for smoked fish and here in Arizona smoked fish is either expensive or nonexistant and I went with smoked clams. I wish I had the fish. Clams are gritty and very strong and I only used a tablespoon or so of them. I also used my first ingredient with its eyes and heads still attached for this dish, crayfish or crawdads. I will say one thing, strange ingredients or not, this is one beautiful looking dish. The orange of the yams, the yellow from the plaintains, the green from the spinach - very lovely.

However, it doesn't taste as beautiful as it looks and by that I mean, it wasn't as flavorful as I expected. After reading about how wonderfully flavored the dishes in Nigeria were, I didn't get that from this. Perhaps it was the clams, I really think fish would have been better. I also couldn't find uzuza leaves, which I have no idea what those taste like, but they could have impacted the flavor a lot. It was slightly spicy, but more in the sense of flavor and not because it was hot. I did like the sweet potatoes and spinach, but it wasn't like that was anything to rave about. In the end I don't know what to think about this, there must be another way to combine these ingredients in a more delicious way. This was another meal that I ate because I was hungry and tired and I didn't exactly jump at having seconds. I've now come to the conclusion that some African food is incredibly delicious and I would make many times, and some of it is just sort so-so. This was definitely just so-so and the only redeeming factor for me was my love of yams and fish. I am going to have to return to Nigeria and try another type of soup, perhaps I just picked one with too many hard to find ingredients.

13 September 2010

Spice Up Life

Angola is located in the south of Africa and was once a Portuguese colony, which is has influenced Angolan cuisine through the addition of spices and how dishes are prepared as far as marinating and roasting is concerned. Different ethnicities throughout Angola have also added variation to the cuisine, however, one thing that each region seems to have in common is their love for spicy foods. Many dishes contain fish or other types of seafood and spicy stews are also quite common throughout the regions.

I was actually more fascinated by the differences in cuisines amongst the tribes. The main tribes in Angola – the Ovimbundu, Kimbundu, Bakongo, and the Lunda and Chokwe - all are slightly different. The cuisines of the tribe may reflect their location, occupations, or influences from other settlers. For example the Ovimbundu tribe consists of many farmers, which explains the addition of maize (corn) to many of their dishes. Not only have the different ethnicities shaped the cuisine of Angola, but also surrounding countries and regions such as the Congo and even India and Malaya. So you can imagine how difficult it would be to find a truly “authentic” Angolan dish.

I went with yet another recipe that required skewers. I’ve realized that these dishes, if you could call them that, are perfect for college students like me. They’re easy and quick to prepare and they make a great lunch between classes. They are also guaranteed to be bursting with flavor since the meats are often marinated. Sticking with Angolan culture, I found one that was spicy called Grilled Prawn (or Shrimp) Piri Piri.

One thing I have to say right off the bat, the Piri Piri sauce has kick to it and if you feel congested you won’t after making this. It also smells really good and I got complements on its aroma before it was even cooked with the shrimp. The best part, it’s super easy to make and definitely not short on flavor. Still without access to a grill, I cooked my shrimp in the oven until they were light pink and then broiled them for about one minute. I wish I had a grill since I know these would come out even better, but they were still delicious. I ate mine with rice that I sprinkled with the rest of my Piri Piri paste. Deliciously spicy and flavorful.

If you are looking for something to spice up your diet, this recipe is a great place to start. It’s not heavy, it’s healthy, and it adds some color to the shrimp. I really enjoyed this one, but be careful because you could easily scare people off with the chilies in this. I received compliments on presentation as well, this is a sure keeper. I’m so glad I’ve gone with kebab type recipes since they’ve both been a couple of my favorites to add some much needed pizzazz to my days.


11 September 2010

Pork and Apricot Sosaties

African cuisine is incredibly widespread, which reflects the melting pot of cultures. In fact there are eleven official languages! South Africa has also had its share of disputes because its land is rich in gold and diamonds. Over time it has been invaded, colonized, or settled by a number of other countries including the Dutch, British, French, Indians, and other European countries. With its incredibly diverse history, you can begin to imagine the scope of their cuisine.

Unlike Zimbabwe and Egypt, South African cuisine is generous with meats and barbecues (braai) are quite common. Something I was unaware of was South Africa’s status as a major wine producer with some of the best vineyards located in valleys. Despite it’s array of cuisines, impoverished (one-fourth of the population) live off less than $1.25 a day. Here in the states you might not even be able to buy a piece of meat for that cheap. Although the middle class lead lives more similar to those of North America and Eastern Europe and many South Africans have embraced an “eating out” culture in which fast food restaurants and chains have become popular – not necessarily American ones, but local chains.

I decided to choose a recipe that embraced the presence of meats as well as fruits and went with a type of grilled kebab called Sosaties. These are typically made from lamb or pork which is marinated in onions, garlic, curry, and tamarind paste for a couple days and then strung on skewers with dried fruits, mushrooms, or peppers. I decided to go with pork since I’ve yet to make anything with pork and I used dried apricots for my fruit. Having no access to a barbecue, I cooked mine in the oven at 370F and they cooked perfectly.

I really liked the flavor that the marinade added to the meat, it was slightly sweet, but tangy from the vinegar and tamarind paste and my meat wasn’t dry at all. I would definitely marinate meat like this again since the flavor was unique and very different from the typical kebabs I’ve had in the past. I would even experiment with other meats like beef and maybe even seafood like shrimp.

However, despite how much I liked the flavor of the meat, I was not a big fan of the apricots which were soaked in dry sherry. I think they would have tasted much better if they were marinated with the meat and the sherry was too overpowering for me. I also think I’ve discovered I have a bit of a “texture” problem with dried fruits that are cooked, they become too mushy and slightly slimy for me. I might try yellow bell peppers next time instead and cut out the sherry, I could see that going over better with my taste buds.

In all, I think this is a good example of a more exotic flavored dish that I liked, while yesterdays stew was an exotic dish that I didn’t like so much. I’ve realized because of this it’s important not to discount any dish before taking a bite, you might just be surprised how the flavors mesh together.

10 September 2010

Huku ne Dovi and Groundnuts

Zimbabwe has quite a few problems as opposed to Egypt when it comes to crops. For one, most of the country is made up of a rolling plain called veld and the combination between the veld and rivers leads to quite drastic erosion of its agricultural lands. They also have quite a bit of pollution from transportation, gold mining, and what turns out to be quite the cement industry. In fact did you know Zimbabwe means “House of Stone?” This actually isn’t because of the cement industry, but because of 800-year-old stone ruins.

In Zimbabwe meat is expensive and only cooked during special occasions, although game meats such as antelope are used. In the summer types of squash, yams, and peanuts are more abundant, however, because of their dry winter months a lot of food is preserved through drying and salting. Due to the lack of meat, I was rather surprised to find chicken listed as an ingredient in the dish I chose which was a stew called Huku ne Dovi, but it turns out that it is often omitted. I decided to include it because I figured it might tone down the strong peanut flavor that this stew would likely have. Oddly enough, when I was researching Nigeria, I found an almost exact copy of this recipe but it was called Groundnut Chop and claims to be a Western African dish. Well, considering Zimbabwe is more south and centrally located, I’m betting variations of this dish pop up all over Africa. After a little more research it turns out I was pretty correct in my assumption and this dish is present in many Sub-Saharan countries and can be quite simple or quite elaborate. For many Africans peanuts (groundnuts) are a source of protein since meat can be scarce.

As for taste, well this recipe was all sorts of strange and it might have been just a little too exotic for me. I think this dish is also a great representation of taking ingredients I love and putting them together in a form that I don’t love as much. Now I’m not saying this was horrible by any means, I mean I did eat the entire bowl (although I was very hungry) – it’s just a bizarre ‘stew’. In fact I would have to eat a bite of chicken or sweet potato to kind of clean my palette a little from all the nuttiness. Now I did omit the okra because I just can’t get myself to like the stuff, and I am positive if I added okra to this it would easily go from ‘edible’ to ‘completely inedible’ for me.

I do wish I had read the part at the end of the recipe suggesting it be served with cornbread before grocery shopping because I can see how that might help this, or at least tone down the peanut taste. I will admit, that the more I ate the more I became accustomed to the unusual flavor, but does getting used to a dish mean I will grow to like it? Will I eventually love it? I really am not sure. At this point it’s looking like a ‘no’ but I do have one bowl’s worth of leftovers so we’ll have to see if my perspective changes tomorrow at lunch. Right now I just feel like I need a drink of water from all the peanut butter.


09 September 2010

Egypt Surprises

Egypt is probably one of the most studied countries in elementary school and it’s no surprise why. If it’s not the deities, it’s the pyramids or the tombs. Then there’s Cleopatra, King Tutankhamen, hieroglyphics - let’s face it, we probably know more about Egypt than what’s under the sea. There’s a lot more to Egypt than what happened thousands of years ago. Of course, I’m talking food. Because of the Nile you can only imagine how wonderful their crops are, I’m talking vegetables by the bucketful, high-quality ones too.

In fact many of their dishes are vegetarian and vegan, not because of some health fad or animal rights activism, but because veggies are abundant and meat pricey. The cuisine is literally built from foods that come from the ground, not to mention hearty. Even in ancient Egypt the peasants ate hearty bread, coarse and hard yes, but still hearty. So I focused on that, I wanted something vegetarian, or vegan even, and hearty. I found the perfect dish right away, one of Egypt’s many national dishes called kushari. With three kinds of grains and starches and onions, it fit the stereotypical Egyptian palette well.

I was actually taken aback by how much I liked this. In fact I was so ready to write a post about how it was nothing special and how bland or boring it was. That’s what I was thinking at least when I chose this dish, I went with it because it was a national dish of Egypt, not because I was truly enticed by it. In my mind I was thinking, “Oh this will probably be something I eat just for the sake of getting another country out of the way.” You can normally tell whether I think I will like a recipe before hand, those are the recipes I make enough for leftovers because I know I wouldn’t mind eating them again. This was not a “leftover” kind of dish.

Well, I was wrong, kushari tastes like nothing I’ve had before. Not that I’m terribly well acquainted with every cuisine on the planet, but I can’t even think of what to compare it with. It’s so strange that such common ingredients can be combined in a way that leaves me questioning what I just ate. It’s important to eat a little but of everything in every bite to get the full effect, a little bit of the pasta, rice, and lentil layer with the tomatoes and fried onions, yummy. Any part by itself isn’t nearly as good and no, it’s not terribly attractive (it’s not as ‘mushy’ as it looks though I promise), but it is flavorful, even if I’m a poor onion frier.

I especially liked how the peppers added a little sweat to my forehead, but I never thought of the dish as spicy, I mean I’m sure it could be if you added enough, but I found that the spicy was dulled and instead brought out the flavors of the fried onions. I do have to say one thing, this dish is definitely dense and not much will leave you full. My photo shows “one serving” but I only managed to eat half of that and stuck the rest in the fridge as tomorrow’s lunch. Props to Egypt, you were the first country to truly take me by surprise. Who knows maybe it’s one of those “you like it or you hate it” kinds of dishes, but it definitely took me by surprise in a good way.


07 September 2010

Lemur-Free Dinner

Madagascar has become a little “famous” or at least well known in the past couple years, no doubt thanks to the movie with the same title. So what do we even know about the place aside from anything lemur related and based off an animated film? I do know it’s the fourth largest island and at one point it was a French colony (though you wouldn’t know it from the cuisine). I also know that while many locals speak Malagasy that English and French have are also official languages here, helping explain the many recipes now with English names. I also know that along with the lemur, Madagascar houses 5% of the world’s plant an animal species, which is pretty impressive for its size. I also learned that like in the movie, there is such a thing as a fossa and this animal isn’t something Dreamworks made up. However, unlike in the movie, there is human life on the island and it’s not ruled by lemurs and their king.

Madagascarian cuisine actually surprised me, probably because I knew nothing about it. I have no idea what I was expecting, but the sheer number of curry dishes was a bit of a shock, it seemed like that was all they ate! After some research, I figured out why. Almost every dish starts with a base of rice, called vary. The rice can be cooked in different ways, some of it is served dry, while certain rices are served “soupy.” From there they add something to accompany it, called laoka which could be any form of sauce, meat – pretty much whatever is being stuck on top of the rice that’s in season at the time. The most common ingredients in laoka are garlic, onions, ginger, tomatoes, mild curry, and salt. Ah, that explains all the curry dishes. Along the coast seafood and coconut milk are common as well. Which brings me to my dish.

I went with the most traditional recipe I could find and from my research my recipe must one from a coastal region because it contains prawns and coconut milk. My recipe also called for all six of the most common ingredients – did I nail Madagascar on the head or what? I think it’s safe to say that I cooked a very authentic meal for this country with my prawn and chicken curry.

This dish was definitely a “me” kind of dish. Curry – check. Shrimp – check. Coconut milk – check. Satisfied – check. I love curries and I have a recipe for a South African chicken curry that I adore, this one was equally delicious not to mention I loved the addition of shrimp. Yum! For a little extra “pow” lime juice is added to the dish and I also sprinkled a little red pepper flakes on it since I like my curries to be a little spicy. Other than that, I cooked it exactly as it was written. I even put my measuring spoons to use and measured everything out for once! This one is definitely a keeper for me, but for anyone out there who has their doubts about curry or isn’t too fond of it, this is not your kind of dish. In fact, if that’s you Madagascar is probably not a cuisine you want to explore much. However, it will definitely be a cuisine I continue to explore especially since I found a few really great Madagascarian cuisine websites in my search for a dish.


06 September 2010

Sveskjut-huh?

Iceland is pretty well known now for it’s geological activity, i.e. remember that volcano that erupted and halted thousands of flights into Europe? Also, average temperatures are always fun to look at. Iceland experiences temperatures not much higher than 60, although hottest temperature on record was in 1939 where it reached a balmy 86.9. Lowest temperature? -36 F. Now that’s cold. However, from the charts I looked at, typically lows are in the twenties, not too bad, we get colder than that here in Flagstaff. So what’s their cuisine like?

First let me just say that it was incredibly difficult finding an Icelandic dish that I could a) find all the ingredients for and cook in my dorm and b) not spend a fortune on. A lot of fish is fermented to make it keep longer and one of the iconic dishes was rotten shark. Um, I don’t think I need to explain why I avoided these. Not to mention, aside from lamb, many of the meats they eat were a little out of reach, like seal and seabirds. So I turned to the dessert area and found that they have some custards and tarts along with seven-layer cakes. As much as I would have loved cooking a seven-layer cake, that just sounded like too much work on Labor Day weekend. So I went with a tart called sveskjuterta because it was easy enough to put together and I had most of the stuff already.

Now I try to be as impartial as possible when I first take a bite of any dish, you know chew it a little, try and pick up the flavors and textures, decide if it has an aftertaste, all that jazz. Having said that, let me say that this tort really tested my gag reflex. It’s official - I have found a dish I would never ever make again. It was bound to happen eventually. I can look on the bright side and at least be glad all I had to buy for this one was a half-cup of prunes.


First let me just say that if the world existed without mashed prunes, it would be a much happier place, a lot prettier too. I don’t know what’s worse, having to look at prunes after they’ve soaked in water overnight, smelling them as they cook, or being reminded of road kill once they’re mashed. I’ve spared you this image, but if you feel cheated just Google mashed prunes you’ll see what I’m taking about. Oh, so then once I had thoroughly mutilated the poor things, I realized that I would eventually have to stick them into a tart and eat it. Have I mentioned how much I’m expanding my horizons thorough this project? Because I MOST DEFINITELY expanded my horizons with this one. I think I managed to gross myself out before even taking a bite, which is never a good thing.

Second complaint I have with this, the “cream” mixture that goes on the bottom of the tart reminds me of tapioca pudding and not in a good way. It’s lumpy, it’s not very flavorful, and it smells a little like baby food, kind of cream of wheatish. I like cream of wheat though, this I did not like. Lastly, the one thing I thought that might pull this tart together and be a redeeming factor, the crust. For one, it takes vinegar, which is odd yes, but I was willing to see past that since it does contain quite a bit of butter. However, it is neither buttery or flaky and very much like cardboard. Forget cutting it nicely, it’s impossible. I should mention it also made my jaw ache with effort and was the blandest dough I’ve ever tasted. If anything I’ve learned that there is a reason Iceland is not famous for its torts.

The best thing about this dessert, the copious amounts of heavy cream I had to drown it in to eat it. Heavy cream that may I just say was leftover from the Gypsy’s arm. There’s also an aftertaste, yeah it haunts you even after you’ve finished it. Did I mention how long this recipe took for me to cook? An hour and a half, and I made a mini one! I’m sorry, I tried to be impartial and I didn’t even hesitate before taking a bite. Of course that’s probably because I wanted to get something out of all that work, but I have to say that this was just not good. Maybe if I were a toddler I would have a better appreciation for the mushy texture, but there is just nothing sophisticated about this, it’s not even that pretty. I’m really going to have to find an Icelandic dish I like to get this one from influencing my opinion of the place because right now I can’t even see the word Iceland without thinking about how dreadful this was. Let's just say I am glad to be moving onto to Africa.


05 September 2010

One-Armed Desserts

You know it’s funny, when I first researched Andorra and looked at how big it was I for some reason read 181.550 square miles as 181,550 square miles and I thought, no way is Andorra bigger than California! I mean just look at it on a map, it’s not even as big as LA! Ha, no folks, that’s a decimal point. This is a sign that maybe I should switch my computer back over the U.S. units eh? Okay, so just to clear things up, Andorra is NOT bigger than California, in fact it’s smaller than one-sixth of Rhode Island. Yeah, I would have felt really silly if I had not corrected that mistake before typing this up.

Now aside from being tiny, Andorra is also very Spanish. Well it is squished between Spain and France so that makes perfect sense. In fact did you know that Andorrans are actually a minority there? Something really interesting about Andorra, they have the second highest life expectancy in the world, yet they don’t have free healthcare? Maybe it’s the rugged mountain air since that’s pretty much what makes up their geography.

Now I wanted to pick something relatively safe from Andorra. And by relatively safe I mean something I could bring to work and expect people to actually eat and to not throw them off my cooking for all eternity. Desserts are always a good place to start, everyone loves desserts. So I turned to my favorite resource, The World Cookbook for Students where the index mentioned a dessert called Brac de Gitano. After a quick Google search I realized Brac de Gitano, which is in Catalan (the national language of Andorra of course) translates to Gypsy’s Arm. One really interesting tidbit about Catalan, it kind of looks like a combination between French and Spanish, how incredibly fascinating. Well I never took Spanish so what do I know, but I did recognize some of the words as having French looking roots.

Okay, so I then searched for recipes for “Gyspsy’s arm” and came up with hundreds. Turns out this dessert can be found in many other countries, all adding their own spin to it. In Andorra it’s typically a white cake filled with either cream or lemon meringue. I don’t like lemons much, that variation was quickly tossed. I found a version that used apricot or peach jam, sounded like a winner. I love peaches. Now I learned some very important things when making this, oddly none of these lessons had much to do with the dish itself. First lesson, unopened cocoa powder is a bit like an unopened container of yogurt. You know how when you first open a yogurt you make sure to point it away from you? Yeah, I’m telling you right now, do the same thing for cocoa powder unless you feel like taking a bath in it. I know, as a passionate baker I’m ashamed it took me twenty-one years and a cocoa dusted shirt to realize this. Second thing I learned, rolling a half-cooled cake into a log is difficult, roll it right out of the oven to save yourself a lot of heartache. Despite these difficulties, my Gyspy’s arm was a success and it went over well at work. I can breathe a sigh of relief, I have yet to scare people away with my cooking!

I actually expected the cake to be more airy because it takes whipped egg whites like the Pavlova, but it’s actually very dense. I was not expecting that, but that isn’t a bad thing, just interesting. The very dense cake does contrast nicely with the generous amounts of whipped cream, even if I could only fit half the amount of cream into this thing, how they manage to get a cup of heavy cream into the cake is a mystery since half mine squished out the ends. Must be a gypsy trick to get it all in there.

Now why on earth is it called a Gyspy arm in the first place? There’s still some uncertainty about the exact origins, but from what I gathered it was named because it looks like an arm. I suppose I could see that, so then why gypsy? A couple people thought it was because this cake was made by gypsies to be sold, but there was still some uncertainty and not a whole lot of proof to back that up. My theory is that is was meant to be some sort of derogatory term since gypsies were not exactly welcome guests in a lot of countries. That’s just a theory though. Whatever you want to call it, this is a nice little dessert. It contains peaches and cream, how could it not go over well?

04 September 2010

Five Stars for Luxembourg

Luxembourg has always been one of those countries I wonder, “How did that get there?” It’s less than a thousand square miles and stuck right between Germany and France, I would have thought that this little territory would have been taken over at some point in history. I mean it has been fought over in the past and one of the reasons why it’s so small is because its size was reduced to at least half to Belgium, not to mention it was invaded and occupied by Germany during WWII. So how on earth did they manage to hold on to the 998 square miles it is today? Somehow it managed to maintain independence throughout the war, despite being occupied, and was one the six founding countries of the European Union. I have to give Luxembourg props for its history.

The cuisine in Luxembourg is not surprisingly a mesh between German and French cuisines with many delicate pastries and smoked meats. Their national dish is smoked pork collar with beans. I did find that it’s currently reported to have the highest alcohol consumption, averaging three beers a day per person (including children). Apparently alcohol is also super cheap here with French wines and German and Belgium beers along with its own array of breweries. So it’s no surprise that the majority of the dishes I found contained some sort of alcohol, mostly wine. So of course I went with one of those, I had to choose something that was very Luxembourgian (actual word). I decided on Hong am Reisleck, which I’m sure you might guess is chicken in Riesling wine.

So equipped with a couple pounds of chicken and a bottle of wine, I made my way to my dorm kitchen where I managed to make the whole first floor smell like a winery. Now I’ll be the first to admit, this dish isn’t exactly a looker. However, like many things in life, and here I’m going to use the overly cliché phrase, it’s important not to judge a book by its cover. We’re all adults here right? We can look past a not so beautiful presentation and see deeper than that. However, what it lacks in aesthetic beauty, it makes up for in smell and taste. If there was a way I could insert what this smells like into this post I would because this stuff is simply mouth watering! Even with a cheapie $5 bottle of Riesling, it’s delicious. Did I mention how tender the chicken was?

I am glad I had leftovers for this one and I know this will wind up in my cookbook. Luxembourg, you have officially wowed me with not only your history, but your food as well. This dish actually reminds me of beef stroganoff, that is if you take away the beef and add wine and chicken. I’m betting if you go to Paris you’ll be overcharged for something similar to this and I am proud that I made it on the cheap, but still got five star results. If you like wine but veer away from French dishes because of all the butter, you should give this one a try. For anyone wondering, I used Campanelle pasta which soaks the sauce right up and adds some frill to this, boy did I feel fancy eating that when the girls around me were munching on taco bell or campus union food! Yes, you can make five star meals in your college dorm.

03 September 2010

Crazy Bread

The Czechs and the Slovaks have always interested me and I know that has a lot to do with my last name, which is Tajc. In fact just having a four letter last name that is so impossible for so many people to pronounce has made me feel more than unique than all the other thousands of people with European relatives. I also feel like I am more out of touch with my Czech roots than say my Italian or German roots so I figured cooking something so uniquely Czechoslovakian would allow me to embrace them a little better.

Czechoslovakia officially became the Czech Republic and Slovakia January of 1993, the split being pretty neutral on both sides. Therefore the cuisine is pretty identical for both countries and only varies slightly from region to region. Due to limited trade in exports and imports, a lot of Slovakian food relies heavily on what is available and what could withstand hot summers and cold winters. Staples include wheat, potatoes, some milk products, sauerkraut, onions and pork. Spices were harder to come by and instead fats and lards used during the cooking process to add flavor. Like most Europeans, lunch is the main meal here and often the "hot" meal of the day. I encountered this similar eating habit when in Germany.

Breads and other wheat products are heavily depended upon, even now with increased importing of other foods, so I decided to make a very popular street pastry known as trdelnik. This pastry is wrapped around a wooden or metal pole and cooked on an open flame. Now if I were any self respecting Czech or Slovak I would own a trdlo, which is the name of the “stick” used to make this popular pastry and the reason why it is often called a trdlo. I even asked dad if he has some sort of clean metal pipe to use, no luck there. I thought about using a very large test tube, but seeing as I got it from the stockroom, not the wisest of ideas since I have no idea what it was used for. So like all good bakers, I decided to just wing it. I also had to go the non-traditional route and find a recipe that could be baked in an oven since my dorm doesn't exactly embrace "open flames" or fire pits in the courtyard. Still, this was such a traditional and praised Czech and Slovak bread, I really wanted to try it.

Now the name trdlo comes from the term crazy, and crazy was just about how I felt attempting this recipe. I felt crazy trying to roll out the dough which is quite stiff and I felt crazy coiling my dough around air, I even felt crazy trying to get it to stand upright. In the end, the crazy won and man did my final product look crazy! Now I’ve included a photo of what the pastry “should” look like and then I’ve included my own version. What can I say? My Czech roots did not help me out on this one at all. Despite the difficulties, I did like the pastry overall and had it for breakfast a couple times this week. It’s not very sweet, more like bread, but the dough is pretty dense. Of course that is most likely my doing since I think it’s supposed to be much thinner, but due to technical difficulties, well you can probably imagine judging by my photo what kind of troubles I ran into. Weirdly shaped or not, it’s still good and someday I will have to find a suitable replacement for a trdlo so maybe I could make this right.

What it should look like...


Then there is my version... okay so it's not quite the same....

02 September 2010

A Taste of Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina recieved their independence fairly recently as far as countries are concerned. In fact it hasn't even been twenty years since they officially became independent from Yugoslavia. I actually knew someone from Bosnia when I went to middle school and because of the Bosnian wars in the 90s his parents had immigrated to the states to escape the horrors that were going on. Because many of the people in Bosnia are Muslim, they primarily eat beef and lamb along with plenty of vegetables. Traditional Bosnian dishes do not exclude meat and of course everyone has heard of Baklava, which is a very traditional desert. In fact the guy I know once brought Baklava his grandmother had made and I definitely have a long way to go before my Baklava is as good as hers was. Meat is typically grilled, although sometimes raw smoked meat is served. I went with one of the most tradtional Bosnian recipes I could find, a type of kebab called Ćevapi.

Ćevapi is a small sausage that is made from a mix of two types of minced meat, often beef and lamb. These little sausages are then grilled and served on a type of flatbread called Lepinja. Typically one serving of Ćevapi is four to six sausages and toppings may include onions, tomatoes, and a cream called pavlaka, which is a bit like sour cream. Both the sausages and bread are best served hot right from the grill or oven, but that's nothing new since we all know food is best when fresh.

To mince my lamb meat I stuck it in a food processor for no more than a couple "pulses" and I can say you definitely don't want it to be ground any more than needed or it might become dense sawdust while cooking. Something you never want. I mixed it with ground beef and added a little bit of onion, garlic, and mild chili. You can actually make these little guys as hot or mild as you want. Lacking a grill, I used a griddle and then broiled them for about 2 minutes to brown them. I also made my very own Lepinja (I know, I went all out for this meal! Two recipes in one dish!) I found the flatbread very easy to work with and boy did it come out delicious! I ate half a piece while waiting for my Ćevapi to finish.

The German in me was very happy with this meal, the sausages were very flavorful and I loved the addition of the mild pepper and served on steaming Lepinja with onions, yum. This is definitely what I think of when I hear the word "street food." I ended up eating the rest of my Lepinja for breakfast after warming it up a little and slathering it with butter and jam, delicious. Don't expect the flatbread to last more than a day, mine was definitely on its way to becoming stale. The sausages tasted almost as good for an afternoon snack, but are also much better fresh. Overall, my Ćevapi meal was a success and I definitely want to try them on a grill in the future.

01 September 2010

Blenderizing Fish

The first thing to note about Denmark, they are much like the rest of Northern Europe and they love their fish. Now we have a lot to thank Denmark for, one of the most important, the lego. Now I know it may seem inconsequential, but where would we be without the lego? There would be no Legoland and we would probably still be playing with Lincoln logs and erector sets. Okay, so maybe we would be doing okay, but when I recall my childhood the lego definitely plays a pretty big role, especially when it came to fighting over the cool helmet with my brothers. Okay, so maybe the world would actually be a better place without the lego causing squabbling only to end up buried somewhere in the yard. Now enough about toys, this is about cooking! Out of the hundreds of Danish recipes out there, some were a little out there. Lots involved pickling and strange ways to prepare fish. I went with a traditional one – the frikadeller.

Frikadeller refers to the Danish version of a meatball, however, along with the typical beef and pork, there’s that of the fish variety. Frikadeller are typically served with potatoes and red cabbage, but I went a non-traditional route and ate mine with leftover peas from the nauratan I made last week. Call me frugal and tired of trips to the grocery store. I can say one thing, before this recipe I had never ever had any reason to blenderize fish. In fact I had no desire to blenderize fish. Is blenderize even a verb? So it was with great sadness that I stuck a wonderfully flaky cod fillet in my blender and pushed “on.” I don’t think I have ever received such strange looks from the other girls in my dorm, which is saying a lot since I’ve cooked some strange things in the past. Once I explained that I was making a Danish recipe for the sake of a blogging contest, they at least gave me a brief “ooooh” before continuing to look on curiously.

I can’t blame them really. I mean I was curious too. After mixing all my ingredients together I had my very own fish paste. Or something like that which is quite repulsive in both looks and smell. The paste is supposed to be formed into “egg shapes” but mine came out a little more like flattened eggs, but that’s okay, I looked at some photos and they looked just like mine so I was reassured. Then I fried them (without setting off the smoke alarm!) and that was that. I was told they smelt good after having cooked them so that was a redeeming quality. All the other girls know I can cook so at least I don’t have to prove myself to be handy in the kitchen, even if the things I do cook result in strange looks.

Now aside from the blenderizing, this recipe was pretty decent. I’m still more of a fan of fish that actually flakes, whereas these little fish eggs lack that texture, but dipped in tartar sauce it was kind of like a denser version of fish and chips sans the chips and the breading. I’m not sure I’d go with this exact version again since I’m betting there are better ways to fry fish, but I did like the little addition of the curry powder. I suppose I’ll use this recipe for inspiration if I ever feel like mutilating a perfectly good fillet in the future.

30 August 2010

Belarusian Pink Hands

Belarus shares a border with Russia, Ukraine, and Poland – all countries I considered for this challenge. So I went with the country stuck in the middle of them assuming that all three would find their way into Belarusian cuisine. I was not left disappointed; Bealarusian cuisine takes the term melting pot quite literally. An interesting fact about Belarus that I discovered is that it is a “coinless” country, meaning they don’t use coins and every bit of their currency is in notes. In fact they have thirteen different notes of varying values! I mean sure, you don’t have to deal with coins, but could you imagine having to sort through bills every time?

I found my recipe for this dish from a legit Belarusian site, and I mean legit! As in I had to search for a site that could translate Belarusian to read the recipe. I can only hope I was translating a recipe handed down from someone’s Belarusian grandmother. Lucky for me the soup has only three steps so even with the use of a poor translating site (as most of them are), I still understood what was going on.

So what did I choose from Belarus? I went with a soup. I haven’t done a soup yet but this was definitely different and very traditional, so I went for it. I decided on a beet soup called Borshch which can be served with sour cream and dill. The soup is Ukranian in origin, but it has been adapted by several other countries and each country has made it their own. In fact there are Romanian, Polish, Russian, even Chinese variations (to name a few). In fact in some countries it is served cold or mixed with cream. Then of course there is the Belarusian variation which uses tomatoes in addition to beets.

So I dyed not just my hand pink from cutting the beets needed for this, but also my cutting board and my spoon. I also scraped my pinkie while peeling my beet which was a little on the “I’ve been sitting around for too long” side. See what kind of sacrifices I’ve made for this blog? My lovely pink hands are the reason why I try to avoid cooking with beets, I mean I love beets, but they are a very messy vegetable.

Due to the tomato paste and the sad state of my beet, the soup wasn’t nearly as pink as I expected as I had seen photos of it. Mine was a dark red-orange color (it’s actually a bit darker and redder in person than the photo below). I suppose if I had used a fresher beet there would have been more of a pink tint from the juices, but this was definitely a very tinted soup, dying all the ingredients. One thing to remember, the longer you cook the soup, the more flavorful it is.

The soup itself is super tasty. The pink hands were worth it! Because of the tomato paste and beef stock, the broth doesn’t have an overly “beety” flavor and manages to absorb a lot of the flavor from the other vegetables. Cutting out the many adjectives I could use to describe this, let me just use one – delicious! Serve it with a thick slice of bread, sheer soup heaven. As you can tell, I definitely liked this soup and if blood red color doesn’t bother you, this is definitely something you want to try. I know when winter comes I’ll be making this one again; it’s a great alternative to the typical vegetable or cabbage soup I make during that time and I do love beets. One thing to note, if you are vegetarian you could swap the beef stock with vegetable stock no problem, there will be just as much flavor and the soup will taste just as great. That concludes country 10, whew! Six dishes this week was hard work! This next day or so I’ll be taking a little break to come up with my next 10 dishes.

29 August 2010

Banitsa Expectations

I'm not going to lie, I chose Bulgaria specifically for its mouth-watering rich pastries since I've heard about them from several people claiming how utterly delicious they are. When I start with a country the first thing I do is turn to Wikipedia, which may get a lot of flack for being unreliable, but it has gotten better over the years. The first pastry mentioned concerning Bulgaria was banitsa, which is a cheese and egg pastry wrapped in layers of phyllo. Sounded good to me! Banitsa is slang for something that's crumpled, for example let's say I was scolded for allowing my homework to become like a banitsa when I turned it in.

Around the holidays such as Christmas or New Years, kusmeti is baked right into the pastry. Kusmeti means luck and you may be asking yourself how they could possibly bake something immaterial like luck into a pastry, well luck comes in the form of charms, coins, or wishes written on paper and wrapped in foil. One lucky charm used is dogwood and each bud symbolizes health and longevity and the pastry is cut in a way that everyone receives a bit of the dogwood branch, I guess depending on the number of buds you receive in your piece determines how many wishes you get. I really enjoyed the optimism that accompanies this pastry.

The most important thing to remember when making banitsa – REMAIN CALM! The phyllo dough is going to break, the mixture is going to seep through, there will be leaks, don’t panic! Just work in a cool and collected manner and take your time… well don’t take too much time or the phyllo will dry out and the eggs will make it mushy, but take enough time to roll it carefully without creating unnecessary holes and tucking away any loose edges. What I’m getting at here is that when baked the dough is very forgiving. I’ve made Baklava several times and no matter how brittle my phyllo is or how many holes appear, it always comes out the same – flaky and delicious. The same can be said here. As long as you get the ingredients from counter to pan without completely destroying each piece, it will work. Think of the phyllo as the newspaper and the butter as your glue, think like this and you’re back to third grade making things with paper mache. Easy right?

As far as taste goes, I was a little overwhelmed with the feta. I have never really eaten feta on anything aside from the occasional Greek salad and I’ve certainly never cooked with it extensively. Having said that, I did like the concept of this pastry overall, I just think it would be a whole lot better with some spinach added to it to balance all that cheese. Because there is A LOT of cheese going on here. I can also see this as more of a brunch thing since it is quite heavy and rich and I couldn’t imagine eating it for dinner or as an appetizer. It’s way too heavy sit in your stomach before bed and the thought of eating anything after this makes me bloated just thinking about it. It’s just too filling.

I would also be interested to see if I can somehow spin this into a dessert since I love the presentation and the flaky layers of phyllo, perhaps turn it into a cream cheese or fruit thing? That sounds more up my alley. I feel like desserts can get away with a lot more as far as overly rich and heavy is concerned. I did read about banitsas made with apples or pumpkins and also some filled with cinnamon, sugar, and nuts and wish I had tried one of those even if they aren't as traditional.

Clearly with all the changes I plan on making to this, I can say it was probably my least favorite dish so far. I was shocked, I really thought I would like this and to be honest, I wanted to like it. I thought it would be reminiscent of the delicious cheese pastries I had in Greece, but the feta was just too much for me and too salty. I do wonder how the “real thing” tastes in Bulgaria. It did have a strange taste to it as well and it took me a while to figure out why it tasted familiar. Then it hit me, this tastes like mac and cheese. Don’t ask me how a carefully handmade pastry could possibly taste like something that comes in a box and sells for 99 cents, but I swear that’s what I got from it. Another downside is that phyllo, while delicious when right out of the oven, becomes rather un-delicious after a day of soaking up all the moisture from the eggs and the cheese.

My conclusion, would I make this the traditional way again? Probably not. Would I experiment with it and turn it into a really delicious desert? Most definitely.

28 August 2010

Armenian Revani

Armenia is a fairly small country, about the same size as Belgium, located on the eastern side of Turkey. Armenia is almost right smack between the Middle East and Eastern Europe in the region known as Eurasia. I actually picked Armenia because I was curious whether the cuisine was more Asian inspired, European inspired, or some jumble of both. Sounded like a great transition country from Asia to Europe! Surprisingly, there is a larger Armenian population living outside the country of Armenia than in the country itself and Armenian communities have sprung up all over the globe. Therefore, a lot of Armenian cuisine varies greatly depending on the different Armenian communities spread throughout the globe. Unlike my original hypothesis that the cuisine would only be influenced by Eastern Europe and the Middle East, I discovered it's influenced by not only both of these regions, but several other regions in Europe, including the Mediterranean and Balkan regions.

So it's no surprise that a lot of the dishes have roots in Turkey, Greece, and France. Dishes on heavy on nuts and fruits and key spices vary from region to region. I came across one sweet called Revani which is present in both Greece and Turkey as well and is a cake soaked in a honey syrup. Many recipes I discovered use seminola, although I did find some that took flour instead giving it a more "cake-like" texture. The cake is still on the dense side as the batter contains a high percentage of ground nuts which add both texture and flavor. Like many Armenian dishes, spices are not heavily relied upon for flavor and this dessert only utilizes cinnamon.

For me, baking this cake was better than eating it. The smell that drifted through the house reminded me of freshly baked muffins or bread, instant stress reliever right there. I'm still convinced someone could make a fortune manufacturing the smell of banana bread, I always find that a very relaxing smell and sometimes bake it during finals week. Mmmm. Revani reminded me of that. Once cooked, the honey syrup is poured over the cake while it's still hot and then chilled. Mom and I had a taste about an hour after it had chilled and both of us found the cake had a bit of a strange flavor, this may be on account of the ancient brandy extract I used in the syrup. However, I took it to school and ate it for breakfast the next day having let it chill overnight and I found the flavor less strange and grew quite fond of it.

I've been eating a piece of it every morning since then and I find that the longer the flavor has to mix with the cake, the better it gets and keeps the cake from drying out. Now I've become attached to the flavor and I do enjoy the slight crunch of the nuts in the cake and the light honey flavor, yum. The best part - it's not too sweet and It tastes great with coffee. In the future I wonder if I would have any luck making revani cupcakes/muffins. The cake rose beautifully, even at 7000 feet and I could see hazelnut cupcakes being a huge success. The only downside of this recipe - hazelnuts can be a bit expensive if they aren't local or you don't have a good place to buy them. Although, with this cake I bet you could experiment with other types of nuts and it would be just as good. In other countries the cake is topped with cream and pistachios. I bet it tasted great with a little vanilla ice cream too. Yummy!

27 August 2010

Pakistan Copies India

I moved back into the dorms yesterday and had to say goodbye to a very well-equipped kitchen. I also didn't have to worry about any smoke alarms going off or kitchen supplies randomly disappearing, this makes my cooking adventure even more of a challenge! I also didn't post yesterday which I feel a little bad about, but man I was beat! You trying carrying heavy boxes up some stairs in this heat and cook afterwards! However, my goal was four dishes a week and it's only Thursday so I'm not too worried. Now, enough of my excuses, let's get on with the real reason for posting.

Pakistan makes the news a lot and like most of the Middle East, it has had its fair share of political and military problems. I wasn't much for World History and that's a topic that would take too long for me to thoroughly research, but what I can tell you about Pakistan is that it holds the second highest mountain in the world and that it's cuisine differs quite a bit from region to region. I was a little overwhelmed at how much the dishes varied. I also know that they consume more meat than India and less fish than much of Asia. I was excited about two things when I chose my dish from Pakistan. The first, it was mostly vegetables, something that has been a bit lacking in many of the dishes previously. Secondly, it did not call for rice! I don't usually have rice more than once a week (I'm more of a pasta person), and between the dishes, the leftovers, and going out for Chinese food with my parents, I was a bit riced out.

The dish I chose to cook wasn't too incredibly common, but it does turn up some recipes if you Google search it. It's called Nauaratan, and I'm not sure how this translates, but it can also be called Nine Jewels Meat with Vegetable. No matter how many Google searches I did, I could not find the origins of how this dish came to be called that or why the title even included the "Nine Jewels" part since there is only one type of meat and twelve different vegetables in it, why nine? Then, after what felt like scrolling through hundreds of pages, I discovered an Indian dish called Navaratan, a dish with a very similar name. This dish had nine ingredients, ah ha! Now that makes more sense. So I Googled some more and discovered that in India Navaratan refers to nine "extraordinary people in a King's Court." I knew the phrase 'Nine Jewels of India' sounded familiar. After looking at the Indian version of the recipe I noticed that it really is quite different. My best guess is that the dish was carried over into Pakistan and it was adapted to ingredients more prevalent int hat region, but that's just a guess. I learned a very important lesson in all this, tracing the history of food can be quite difficult, no wonder there's controversy surrounding Pavlova!

I decided that there was a lot I liked about this dish and a lot that I either didn't like or felt could be changed and so to organize my thoughts better I'm broken them up in a sort of good/not so good list.

The Good
-Veggies! If you love vegetables like me, you will love this, it's bursting with them.
-After quite a bit of chopping, the rest is incredibly simple. One good thing about moving back to the dorms, we just got a whole set of new knives last semester and they sure beat the ones at home making even the chopping part easy.
-Did I mention just how much I love vegetables? This dish has almost all my favorites in it.

The Not So Good (but easy to change)
-I read so much about how flavorful the dishes were, but didn't taste much of the spices that I added. I tasted the vegetables, which were very good, but kind of make adding spices pointless. Perhaps I should have added a little more? I'm always wary of overpowering a dish.
-This recipe called for lamb and I honestly think it would do better without, I just don't think the lamb adds a lot to it. perhaps if the lamb was marinated in something before so it complemented the dish rather than just drowning amongst the vegetables.
-The peas sink to the bottom. I know, I'm getting picky, but that really bothered me during the cooking aspect of it.
-Speaking of cooking, some vegetables cook much faster than others. If I were to make this again the potatoes and turnips would go in first and cooked for a while, then maybe the carrots and zucchini added, then the rest. The eggplant also cooked very quickly and turned a kind of gross brown color. With 12 vegetables (well 11 since I omitted the okra), it really is difficult to get them done at the same time and just sticking them all in at once, not possible.

Okay so it looks like the "Not So Good" beat out the "Good," but that's not necessarily the case. I still really liked the dish and I loved how healthy it was. I could see myself adapting this quite easily to my likes and even adding or omitting vegetables to my personal taste. I also want to try sticking it in the oven instead and adding additional spices, I think with a little experimentation I could really like this, more as a side though to be honest rather than a main course. However, that wouldn't require a recipe so it's not likely I need to add this one in my cookbook since I plan to deviate from it quite a bit to make it to my liking. It is rather pretty though, even in the pitiful lighting in my dorm room as I try to block out the afternoon sun.



To be honest, you're better off winging it, unless you want hard potatoes and mushy eggplant, but hey that's just me.